• Confessions of a Tone Troll; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the CHUDs.

    Tone troll reaching for her pearls.

    What a difference a year makes.  Twelve short months ago, I was an admirer of PZ Myers’ blog Pharyngula, and a happy dipper of my toe into some of the other Freethought pools.  I went there for news and views, mainly, always ready to chortle at the latest YEC comedy routine, pharyngulate a silly poll, or follow links to cool science sites or skeptical tidbits.  Oh, there was the odd post that gave me pause: posts where PZ was hoodwinked by a hoax, or snarked with excessive harshness on things like, say, being too nice to one’s Christian relatives. It was mildly embarrassing to learn I’d be considered a borderline accommodationist and a milksoppy dictionary atheist, but hey – FtB did not loom very large on my horizon. 

    What I almost never did, however, was read more than few inches into the comments, largely on the grounds that life is too short.  And since I did not find Elevatorgate very interesting while the crisis was on, I either skipped or skimmed any discussion of it.  Just another overblown internet flap, I thought.  Anyway, I remembered Rebecca Watson from her pre-banning days on JREF, and considered her a lightweight then, a kind of frat-girl given to not terribly witty jokes.  My skimming, though, left me with the vague impression that Watson had morphed into a brave martyr for women’s rights, that the lovely Richard Dawkins had blotted his copybook, and that an evil troll blog-nymmed ERV was flapping her leathery wings around the edge of the lighted space, along with legions of her slimy minions.  It appears I was wrong on all counts.

    My epiphany did not come via Pharyngula.  Evidently some vile sexist misogynistic douchebag had polluted the pages of Nature with a piece of truly egregious asshattery, and one of the other Freethought bloggers was fearlessly calling him and the editor to account.  Crikey, thought I, and followed the link. It led to “Womanspace”, a very short story by a South African virologist named Ed Rybicki: a lighthearted bit of fictional fluff built on a whimsical quantum-type theory to account for women’s general superiority in the shopping arena.  Not great literature, but light, funny, and competently written.  I wondered if I had followed the wrong link.  I thought one would really have to work hard to find that story offensive, but it seemed that a lot of people across the internet were willing to make the effort.

    Here’s the short version.  I went back and read not just the OP, in all its self-righteous pettifogging detail, but also the comments – a chorus of playground jeers and insults that went beyond Rybicki to smear his wife and family members as well.  Rybicki personally came on the thread in a doomed effort to defend himself, with a comment that was written partly in a kind of rhetorical third-person, and was thus seized upon as sockpuppetry.  Anyone not joining in the chorus was assumed to be another sockpuppet, or else there at Rybicki’s instigation.  Then the fearless blogger opened up an entirely gratuitous second thread – a gleeful invitation to a pitchfork party, an online version of a stoning.  I was disgusted enough to wade into that one myself, bringing on all the predictable accusations of tone-trolling and toxic socks – so I said my bit, and stuck my flounce.  

    Now, what disgusted me even more than the infantile vulgarity of the comments (and the OP, for that matter) was their pointlessness.  What were these people trying to accomplish?  What did they actually want Rybicki to do?  From the sound of it, they’d be happy with nothing short of public confession and a grovelling apology, followed by Rybicki burning himself alive on a bonfire made from that entire issue of Nature.  Or was he just supposed to accept his role as a kind of human sacrifice, pour discourager les autres?  The immaturity of it was breathtaking.  Which led to a question of equally breathtaking naiveté on my part: did the grownups know?  If PZ, who was almost my age, could see what was happening, would he not be disgusted as well?

    Silly me.  I went over to Pharyngula and at last began reading the comments.  Went back and read up on Elevatorgate, paying attention this time.  In the next few days, PZ more than answered my question, and in the negative – first with his hard line on the hapless Gelato Guy, and then with the amazing clusterfuck of Bunnygate, where he caved in to the pressure of his own commentariat.  I shifted into lurking anthropologist mode, and kept watching.  Over the next few months, I watched Ryan Grant Long undergo a version of the Rybicki treatment, followed by DJ Grothe being pilloried for trying to show how Ryan had been misrepresented.  I watched John Loftus, whom I like and respect, pulling out of FtB in protest.  I came out of lurkage once more, in January, when the dogpack’s savaging of Edwin Kagin, of all people, was too agonizing to watch from the sidelines.  Etc.  But even a lurking anthropologist can get bored when the data simply repeat themselves.  I’ll cut to the chase: my informal observations, for what they’re worth.

    Those involved in this bizarre behavior included about half of the Freethought bloggers, their Skepchick buds, and a shifting population of faithful commenters.  Their demons – the targets chosen for pelting in the stocks – were increasingly men and women who might otherwise be regarded as allies and even heroes, including prominent atheists and skeptics. The concentration of vitriol, the insularity, the attacks on newcomers, chimp-style grooming of insiders, demonization of dissidents, and shrill adherence to a tight-lipped, zero-tolerance creed of “social justice,” were all ways to bind a community.  It was, moreover, a community based not on reason and the examination of ideas, but on the knee-jerk application of a peculiar bigotry – any of us who were deemed to fall short were offered no empathy and no quarter, and attempts at self-defense or even rational discourse just compounded our douchebaggery in their eyes. The phenomenon began to look more and more like either a mass case of borderline personality disorder, or a cult.  In fact, the recent spinoff into Atheism+ looks like a cult with a mass case of borderline personality disorder.

    I have some thoughts about how and why this happened, but will save them for another time.  However, to mark the anniversary, I’ve invited the accidental agent of my epiphany to be my guest on Lateral Truth.  Next up: Ed Rybicki speaks out on his brief, puzzling career as a misogynist douchebag.

    Category: Atheism

    Article by: Rebecca Bradley

    4 Pingbacks/Trackbacks


    1. Yeah, you pretty much nail it, right down to Elevatorgate being in and of itself a not-particularly-interesting internet blowup. (But *damn*, the people on all sides who want to keep refighting that one.)

      The thing is, I came across this after hanging around the periphery of the feminist blogosphere via the online sex-positive community. I was perfectly disgusted by the level of bullying that had become absolutely endemic in online feminism, and the whole toxic “callout” culture. So I was quote displease to see that there were a group of people who within atheism who were essentially trying to make feminism the kind of official ideology of atheism, and import the toxic culture of online feminism wholesale. I was even more disgusted to see at least one of my favorite bloggers, Greta Christina, playing a key role in this, and her strong intellectual coherence being noticeably dragged down by participation in online feminist drama.

      I see the same trends going on in the “sex-positive” world, which is increasingly dominated by those with a narrow-minded “more feminist/marginalized than thou” attitude.

      What can I say – “social justice” and it’s nasty stepchild political correctness are fashionable these days. Maybe it’s a generational thing.

      1. Thanks for the good comment! I’m not sure how large the generational factor is, though; PC has been around a while, with enough clout to have affected the language. The internet is certainly part of it, as per the Greater Internet Fuckwad theory – where, previously, could a folie like Bunnygate ever have achieved the momentum it did, and the vilenss it spawned, without actual blood being spilt? I ran a couple of the threads past my twenty-something kids, and their reaction boiled down to a very non-PC “buncha freaks”. Mind you, they also found it adorable that their aged mum was involved in an online flame war, so what do they know? 🙂

      2. IACB wrote:

        I see the same trends going on in the “sex-positive” world, which is increasingly dominated by those with a narrow-minded “more feminist/marginalized than thou” attitude.”

        I’ve been seeing that too, and it’s not a nice sight. Sad actually. Back in late 2010, it really seemed different and more modern, but now it’s almost all like victim-based radfeminism with the only exception being the acceptance of sex work.

    2. Wow, you write very well with aptly chosen words and phrases. But more than that, your observations are right on the mark. I think too many young zealots are attempting to captain the ship without any mature leadership at the helm.

    3. Spot on, and you could have pointed to many more incidents of the truly depressing and borderline-deranged behaviour of this furious little knot of zealots, but as you say: life’s too short.

      It really is depressing that Myers bought into this madness, but it’s long been clear that he now gets off on vituperation and condemnation to such an extent that he doesn’t much care who’s on the receiving end of it, or maintaining any sense of proportion in attack. Or indeed, remaining honest.

      I continue to hope that more and more truly reasonable people will see what’s going on there (and at A+) and simply stop interacting with these people. Maybe at least some of them will get the message.

      1. Yeah, I had actually roughed out a much longer outline, going into some of the later bizarro stuff – but realized I was already getting into tl;dr territory, and was also getting very weary of the whole thing. But it was an anniversary of sorts, and I do love an anniversary!

    4. Haha, wow, this article is silly. I agree that there seems to have been an overreaction to some things, but I hardly see a need to defend something like Womanspace, as although it’s certainly light, it’s neither funny nor competently written. The rest is just…I don’t even know what to say.
      Also, wasn’t this network supposed to be free of the divisiveness seen elsewhere in the atheist/skeptic community? Yet John himself praises this article. Perhaps said policy was discarded alongside the old name? After all, tribalism is for everyone.

      1. Thank you for your comment. Hmm. The first thing I learned as a published writer is that everyone’s a critic. The second was that critics can and do come out with diametrically opposed critiques. You’re entitled not to like Womanspace, and so were all the critics a year ago. But the goodness or badness of a story is not a moral issue. My objection was to demonizing the poor guy (and his family members) as if he’d wrapped up a misogynist manifesto and a rape manual, all in 1000 words. Did you follow the links I provided. As for the rest, I do wish you could find the words, as I’d be interested in what you have to say.
        You’re correct that this network started off wanting to steer clear of all that stuff, but decided that the elephant in the room was a little large to ignore all the time. However, we try not to obsess. Note that, out of seventeen posts, this is my first to address the issue. Tribalism? I’ll talk about that later, and below.

    5. Epic post is epic, Rebecca. Your experiences very much parallel my own in different threads.

      Just one word of caution to everyone who has also recognised what is happening in our community: we are human too and also apt to retreat into tribal thinking. Let’s be careful to never fall into the same trap of vitriol, insularity, attacks on newcomers, grooming of insiders, and demonization of dissidents. We should consider the social justice wing of the movement as potential allies to be won over at best, sparring partners at worst, but never as reprobate heretics to be condemned and driven out.

      I suppose that last paragraph makes me a tone troll, too.

      1. Rebecca and Damion, I love your tone trolling. We should be able to engage in debate on any issue without Damion’s accurate list:

        “vitriol, insularity, attacks on newcomers, grooming of insiders, and demonization of dissidents”

        I thought when I walked away from the religious environment I grew up in, and embraced skepticism as a methodology for living, I would be in a better place. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

        Carol Tavris’s and Elliot Aronson’s “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)” should be at the top of every skeptics reading list. And, when reading that book, if it doesn’t bring to mind times when you*, yourself, have allowed confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance to cloud your judgement, perhaps you’re not as skeptical as you think you are. The first place our skepticism should be applied is to ourselves and our own thinking. Doing so should make us humble and, therefore, less likely to be uncharitable towards others.

        *Impersonal ‘you’, not personal ‘you’…I’ve been clobbered too many times by people taking this usage of the word ‘you’ as a direct personal attack about their behavior. I’m not pointing fingers at anyone in particular.

    6. I think the root of the problem is that we have a substantial number of so-called skeptics/atheists out there who treat skepticism as a vehicle for bashing their enemies. They don’t apply much skepticism to their own beliefs. A proportion of these people are knee-jerk social justice warriors. A certain speaker on the conference circuit, with no discernible credentials to be lecturing anyone, decided to co-opt this lot for her own ends. She used PZ Myers sympathy for feminist ideology to manipulate him by playing victim to evil misogynists. He of course, has used his fallacious ‘argument from you’re too stupid’ tactics against the backlash. It’s a career move on her part.

    7. I hadn’t previously been aware of this short story or the fuss that has blown up around it and I’m probably displaying my privileged background by still not getting what the fuss is about.

      If genders had been swapped for each character in the story and it became about two women being unable to account for men’s abilities to find a particular product whilst shopping without inventing some ridiculous parallel universe then I might see how some sensitive women might be uncomfortable with the characterisations. But, as it is, this is just a gentle ribbing at the expense of men.

      The willingness (enthusiasm) that some people seem to have for finding offence in the most innocuous of settings never ceases to amaze and disappoint.

        1. Still reading comments. Grdered “Mistakes Were Made but not by me”. going to read offending story next. Wow. I was on a dysfunctional poetry listserve thingy once. No fun. This brings it all back. Your words in your blogpost! I can’t believe I EVER beat you at Scrabble!

    8. Would someone compile an A+ Newspeak dictionary for me? Since this silliness kicked off I’ve been assailed by an avalanche of jargon like “tone troll”, man-splaining”, Schrodinger’s Rapist”, ect. I understand the need to shut down discussion with esoteric thought-crime accusations & all, but I’d like to at least understand the sins I’m guilty of.

      1. Heh. Good point. Atheism+ has a wiki with links to some of their jargon, but it’s incomplete and pretty dull. But I seem to recall someone at the Slyme Pit was compiling a list of A+/FtBSpeak – I’ll check. IT should be anything but dull.

    9. Good article.

      I have always postulated that those who finally reach the correct conclusion about the wasteland that is FreeThoughtBlogs, A+ and Skepchick, etc. have gone through a similar “deconversion” process to those former religious people who are now non-believers.

      Anyway, thank you for speaking out – we need an increasing number of people to call out the FTBullies and their like-minded followers.

      1. Oddly enough, I had originally thought of using “deconversion” in the title of this piece, because you’re right – the parallel is striking.

    10. TIL I missed something called “Bunnygate”. Since I wasted way too much time on Elevatorgate, and defending Gelato Guy (though I hope it helped some), I feel like I dodged a bullet. Sometimes, ignorance really is bliss.

      1. Welcome, fellow tone troll! Oh, Bunnygate was something else, all right. Weirdly compulsive reading, but SO staggeringly ugly and angry and counterproductive, not to mention bloody endless. For me, slogging through it was not entirely a waste, because it completed the process of disillusionment that the Womanspace kerfuffle began. But it sounds like you had already been pretty much disillusioned by that point anyway, so yeah – you dodged a bullet for sure.

    11. “Anyway, I remembered Rebecca Watson from her pre-banning days on JREF, and considered her a lightweight then, a kind of frat-girl given to not terribly witty jokes. ” Perfect description. That’s exactly the image I was looking to find..

    12. I had pretty much the same experience there as you did. Pharyngula used to be a semi-regular stop, with an occasional visit to some of the others. It leaves a bad taste that it’s degenerated to become a stroke-fest for the self-aggrieved, who perceive sexism in every cloud animal they spot.
      I still check in on Physioproffe once in a while.

      1. I really know nothing about the Comradde, other than a post he made concerning privilege. He basically seemed to be pushing the ‘don’t argue with the lesser privileged’ line. Filed him under ‘this guy blogs, and people follow it?’.

        1. The PhysioProffe?? Apart from the keyboard equivalent of Tourette’s, you mean? I give you this edited gem from my blog, which I used to close comments on W****s***e:

          “Dumshitte [sic], why are you incapable of getting it through your thicke fucken [sic x2] skull that whether you are or are not “an irredeemable sexist” is 100% completely irrelevant to the appropriate understanding of your story vis-a-vis misogyny and the systemic oppression of women? How many fucken [sic] times does this have to be explained to you before you’ll get a fucken [sic] clue?”

          After that, I could happily shut the cistern lid forever.

    13. Very well said. It’s almost odd to type the name Rebecca in the same paragraph as my first sentence.
      I’m glad to see more and more people willing to speak up about the outbreak of idiocy we have seen. Although I think it is very sad some of the people involved turned out to be the very thing they were fighting against for so long, I think the end result will be a good thing.

    14. I was disgusted enough to wade into that one myself, bringing on all the predictable accusations of tone-trolling and toxic socks – so I said my bit, and **stuck my flounce**.

      Put a nice smile on my face.

      Thank you!

    15. I used to be a frequent reader and commenter at Pharyngula (under a different username) but I started reconsidering my participation when Crackergate went down. Then when Elevatorgate hit the fan, I was really stunned at the “all men are rapists” mouth-foaming and the level of rage and hatred being expressed against all men, even the guys who would post grovelling apologies for being male. I posted a comment mildly criticizing Watson for her treatment of Stef McGraw, and immediately had 20 of the most obnoxious commenters dogpiling on me, calling me a rape enabler and worse. I left Pharyngula and never looked back, apart from enjoying Bunnygate and other outbreaks of mass insanity.

      Even more disappointing than all the juvenile hatred and “us vs. them” tribalism is seeing how rationalism, skepticism and freedom of thought fly out the window as soon as radical feminism rears its ugly head. FTB/A+/skepchick has become just another toxic cult that believes any wild conspiracy theory that puts men in a bad light, without even thinking of asking for evidence. Not to go all No-True-Scotsman, but these people have become a lunatic fringe, the tea party of atheism, and I want nothing to do with them.

    16. PZ Myers’ blog was also how I first became aware of FTB (actually, back when he was on ScienceBlogs). I had thought of him as a champion of atheism but not intellectually rigorous in his blogging–not really a hanging offense, just a point of order. His blog entries seemed to mix interesting science with random venting about how frustrating it was to deal with religious zealotry.

      Then I noticed his ranting tone coming to predominate more and more of his posts, with even less attention paid to rational inquiry and examination of evidence–even on scientific topics. For awhile I considered him interesting but flawed, with a huge “no-skepticism allowed” blindspot when it came to politics in general and feminism in particular.

      And the community of posters egged him on in this direction. Eventually, Myers abandoned all pretense of speaking up for reason and evidence–his positions on every topic were simply RIGHT, and anyone who disagreed or even questioned was simply and obviously Wrong.

      That’s the opposte of critical thinking, and such an attitude is no friend to freethought either. Myers doesn’t represent reason and skepticism any more–he’s formed a new orthodoxy around himself, with its own self-righteous dogma. What a disappointment.

    17. Didnt know about the Rybicki affair. It would be delightful to understand what is the a) mindset that creates this behavior, and b) what is its history and how widespread it is.
      Re: a) I am convinced that there are 3 aspects that generate observable human behavior
      1) Ideology
      2) Human Nature (anger over some past sleight .. for e.g Jean Kazez said that “exaggerated victimhood triggers exaggerated dismissal” to describe the Dear Muslima response)
      3) Pathologies of Human Nature (disorders such as Borderline Personality Disorder). Of course to us mere mortals over the internet, we cant figure out which/what combination of these factors is at work.
      We cant do much about 2 and 3..so the best we can do is to analyze the ideologies at work. I personally see a huge amount of ‘modern liberals’ and ‘feminists’ at work in the atheist community. Since politics cant be 100% separated from our community, I would strongly recommend that a Blogging Network such as yours include voices from others parts of the political spectrum. And even advertise that aspect on the blog. If this mess has taught us something, its that we need diversity of ideas lot more than diversity of birth characteristics.

      I have studied feminism and its history a good deal in response to this, and it just isnt pretty to say the least. Suffice to say that I am an anti-feminist now.

      Re: b) the history of such behavior.. what do you think of Tammy Bruce’s work The New Thought Police from 2002. I think she’s delightful in this, and talks about the difference between ‘Protest’ and ‘Intimidate and Punish’ approaches that have come to dominate some sections of the Left over the decades. And this is exactly what we see in the atheist community.

      Ms. Bruce talked about her book, The New Thought Police: Inside the Left’s Assault on Free Speech and Free Minds, published by Prima Publishing. The book discusses the Left’s impact on cultural issues in the United States. Ms. Bruce argues that the Left has created an environment in which legislation is used to control how people think and McCarthyite tactics are used to destroy those who express politically incorrect ideas. She discusses the cases of radio host Dr. Laura Schlesinger, Politically Incorrect host Bill Mahr, and murder victims Matthew Shepard and Daphne Sulk. Ms. Bruce also talks about her own experience working within the liberal organizations that she now criticizes. Ms. Bruce answered questions following her remarks.

      PS: Puh-lease setup someway for us to be notified on new comments/replies. Maybe a subscribe-by-email.

    18. “Also, wasn’t this network supposed to be free of the divisiveness seen elsewhere in the atheist/skeptic community?”

      I see this article as an appeal to end the divisiveness. It criticizes incendiary behavior and insults, and does so in a calm manner.

    19. Apologies to any of you who have had to wait for mod-approval or responses – I’ve been away from home, and preoccupied with family business, some of it happy, some of it not-so-much. Back to speed in a day or two. Thank you all for the thoughtful comments. Astrokid, I’ll look into the notification thing.

    20. Someone calling for decency isn’t a tone-troll to me.

      However, someone that cries tone persecution after continually makes bad arguments that they then completely fail to support logically other than “because my belief system says so” are definitely tone trolls. They aren’t interested in discourse, they are just upset that their logic skills are so lacking.

    21. …and since this is moderated, I will show what I mean. I don’t actually expect you to post this, but you might think it is interesting for yourself:


      JW has been commenting for about a year. I’ve actually followed Libby since she had a small blog way back when. Anyways, JW always trots out these arguments on the abortion posts. Each time, people have carefully responded to him and each time he brings up some nonsense argument having nothing to do with what he said previously, all while not really addressing anything said to him. I think this is a great example of what ‘tone-trolling’ should be.

      1. Yeah, this JW dude sounds like a common or garden troll. Of course, Libby Anne has a good moderation policy in place, and she applies it fairly and firmly, so the kind of vicious disgustingness seen in the examples I gave above could not happen at her place.

        In fact, I seem to remember that, in Libby Anne’s brief sojourn at Freethoughtblogs, some of the more potty-mouthed commenters objected to her moderation policy, because they felt it contravened their free speech – that is, their right to be as vicious and potty-mouthed as they pleased. I admired her very much for setting a high standard, and sticking to it.

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *